Volume X, Number 2, Fall 2014


"From “Europe Central” to the Mid-Atlantic: Danilo Kiš and the United States" by John K. Cox

John K. Cox is professor of history and department head at North Dakota State University (Fargo). He earned his PhD from Indiana University in 1995. In Fall 2014 he was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Szeged. His speciality is East European intellectual history in the 20th century. Email:

Introduction

The recent biography of Danilo Kiš (1935-1989), written with great critical insight and bracing enthusiasm by the British historian and South Slav scholar Mark Thompson, contains almost no references to the United States. A few American intellectuals and books are mentioned, above all, but the low quotient of Americana in this serious, reliable study of Kiš‘s life is indeed accurate. There exist, however, at least two reasons for examination of the role of America, American history and culture, and people from the United States in Kiš‘s work. The first is to begin to account for the impact that Kiš has had on American intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Philip Roth, and William T. Vollmann. The second is to try to determine if Kiš‘s writing involving the United States is of a piece with the rest of his work or if it perhaps contains unique features that shed light on the Kiš‘s intellectual concerns or creative processes. To attempt to reach these goals, one must sift through both his fiction and his non-fiction.

Kiš and American Literature

A useful source for assessing Kiš‘s appreciation of American literature consists of a small set of book reviews that he published in the late 1950s. There are four of these reviews, comprising two novels by William Faulkner, one by Irwin Shaw, and one by James T. Farrell.

Kiš reviewed the Croatian translations of The Sound and the Fury (orig. 1929) and The Town (orig. 1956). He stressed, and seemed to enjoy, the fact that both of these novels follow the evolution, or degeneration―also common in European literature―of an American family in the face of social modernization. He praises Faulkner not only for his formal experiments and innovation but for “the power of his talent and his creative zeal” bearing “the stamp of authenticity and lived experience.”1 The former novel is much stronger, Kiš says, perhaps because of its more interesting plot but also, significantly, because of its early use of “polyphony” and “multi-valence.”2

In his review of Farrell’s contemporary Studs Lonigan trilogy, Kiš finds naturalistic fuel for any avenue of social criticism―via alcoholism, racial discrimination, etc. But ultimately Farrell does not achieve artistic truth, says our reviewer, despite the “factual exactitude” and photographic objectivity of his scenes. The reasons for this failure are not clearly enunciated, though the lesson is obviously an important one for Kiš, who later often noted in interviews that his first attempt at Holocaust writing (Psalm 44) was burdened by overly graphic depictions.3 Irwin Shaw’s Lucy Crown, by contrast, succeeds admirably as literature because the author “never insists.” Kiš notes, as in the case of Faulkner, the reader is presented with an American family in decline. Perhaps in a reflection of the spirit of the early Cold War, Kiš underscores the illusory nature of the peace and self-confidence of “the American way of life.”4

In addition to these reviews, Kiš refers, his substantial body of essays and interviews, to many other American books and authors. He makes significant reference to Edgar Allan Poe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mark Twain and Thomas Wolfe, as well as Faulkner. By dint of the number of times Kiš mentions these writers (in Homo Poeticus, for instance) or the detail of his discussion of them, we can assert that these writers were his American favorites or had some influence on him. This assertion should be made, however, in a spirit of modesty, because Kiš was forthrightly and overwhelmingly absorbed by the poetry of Endre Ady, the French Symbolists, and the Russian poets of the Silver Age, on the one hand, and the prose of Jorge Luis Borges, Bruno Schulz, Rabelais, and James Joyce on the other.5

In addition to the names above, his essays contain fleeting or minor references to Ambrose Bierce, Truman Capote, O. Henry, Henry James, Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, and Walt Whitman.

This indicates that he read fairly widely in American literature. He seems to have read both in translation and in the original English and, in general, assessed the state of the 20th-century novel and publishing industry in the United States as positive, although Paris remained, as ever, the most important city for publishing and networking for any author in the world. According to Kiš‘s ex-wife, Mirjana Miočinović, he visited the United States only twice, both times in the 1980s; visits with publishers, intellectuals, and academics in New York were the focus of both trips. He typically communicated with Americans in French or through a translator, because his English was not “good enough to speak with the precision and unambiguousness on which Danilo insisted.”6

Kiš had a major impact on established American writers such as Philip Roth, who included Kiš‘s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich in his pathbreaking series for Penguin begun in the late 1970s, Writers from the Other Europe7; on younger generations of American fiction writers, such as William T. Vollmann, who touchingly dedicated his huge National Book Award-winning novel Europe Central (2005); and on critics such as Susan Sontag, with whom Kiš corresponded in French and who published an English version of Homo Poeticus during the horrific war in Bosnia in 1995.

Credit for Kiš‘s profile in the United States would seem to lie with his excellent translators from the 1970s through the 1990s. Below is a list of book-length translations of his work. Although it exceeds the scope of this brief essay, an accounting of Kiš‘s impact in the United States would also include his many published interviews, the individual journals (such as The New Yorker) in which his stories and essays appeared, and also the major discussions of his work in British and American media since 2000 (such as the Times Literary Review). Citations of individual stories or articles by and about Kiš can be easily located using the multi-volume bibliographies of Vasa D. Mihailovich.

Major Transalations

1975: Garden, Ashes by William J. Hannaher (orig. Bašta, pepeo, 1965)
1978: A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Duška Mikić-Mitchell (Grobnica za Borisa Davidoviča: sedam poglavlja jedne zajedničke povesti, 1976)
1989: The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Michael Henry Heim (Enciklopedija mrtvih, 1983)
1990: Hourglass by Ralph Manheim (Peščanik, 1972)
1995: Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews by Ralph Manheim, Michael Henry Heim, and Francis Jones (anthology drawn from several volumes of Kiš‘s collected works, including Homo poeticus, 1983)
1998: Early Sorrows: For Children and Sensitive Readers by Michael Henry Heim (Rani jadi: za decu i osetljive, 1970)
2008: The Attic by John K. Cox (Mansarda: satirična poema, 1962)
2012: The Lute and the Scars by John K. Cox (Lauta i ožiljci, 1994)
2012: Psalm 44, by John K. Cox (Psalam 44, 1962)
2014: Night and Fog: The Collected Dramas and Screenplays of Danilo Kiš by John K. Cox (anthology drawn from Noć i magla, 1983; Pesme, Elektra, 1995; and Dva filmska scenarija, 2011)
Forthcoming in 2015: Apollinaire Dreams of Love: Poetry by Danilo Kiš by John K. Cox (anthology drawn from Pesme, Elektra, 1995)

America and Americans in Individual Works

Unfortunately there are not many substantial references to the United States in Kiš‘s works. The thin documentary record here does not bear much theorizing. This is a natural and organic state of affairs, because, although Kiš was an extremely open-minded and cosmopolitan advocate of world literature, his own creative works, with their strongly autobiographical roots, grew out of European and Eurasian history. Nonetheless, examination of a few relevant scenes reinforces our understanding of key mechanisms and ideas in Kiš‘s work. The examples below move, in turn, from ironic distance from tragedy, to the persecution of the outsider, to a vociferous defense of the independence of artists.

At the end of Kiš‘s early novel Psalm 44, which concerns a young woman from the Vojvodina who survives the Holocaust at Auschwitz, there is a scene set in the late 1950s in the memorial center and museum of the death camp. A group of American tourists turns up, energetically doing “the tour” of Europe; their presence is mostly benign, compared to some European portrayals of American naivete. But their appearance underscores the international nature of the Auschwitz phenomenon (both during and after World War II) and interposes a chronological distance to the terrors of the war, a distance that is also constructed by the presence of the survivor’s child, a boy approaching his teenage years who was actually born in the camp.

One entire short story by Kiš, “An American Story” (originally published in 1965), is set in Massachusetts and Alabama in the 1920s and 1930s. This atypical subject matter for Kiš was perhaps inspired by his reading of Faulkner (see above). But the story also has much in common with some of Kiš‘s other uncollected early tales, such as “The Model” and “The Robot.”8 In “An American Story,” a boy from the North, John Smith, is bullied at school because people in his town seem to think he is partially African-American. Indeed one of his grandfathers was black, but John had never been told this. When he finds out, he tells his brother that he might as well become all the way black, and turn into Joe Louis, so that he can forcibly shut up his detractors. Smith goes on to become a famous civil rights lawyer; he moves to the South and marries a black woman. He dies young, at age thirty-three, and in a very unexpected way: one day he catches a fever, overnight he is completely transformed into a black man, and then he passes away the next day, cursing the young man back in Massachusetts who bullied him about his biracial facial features and whom he considers responsible for his forcible metamorphosis. Complementing the heavy symbolism of the tale is the fact that jazz great Louis Armstrong then plays at Smith’s funeral.

A final example of American content comes from Kiš‘s long autobiographical sketch from the late 1950s, The Paris Trip, which has never been translated into English. This delightful essay is Kiš‘s homage to the city of his artistic dreams, which he visited as a twenty-something brimming with opinions on French literature, impressions from other East European pilgrims, and a zeal for the French language. In a closing cafe scene, he meets a destitute poet who is selling his “unpublished works” that he composes for other guests on the spot. The almost equally impoverished Kiš buys one of the man’s poems, and they fall into conversation:

“I have another one,” he said. “Political satire. About Ho Chi Minh.”
“?!”
“It’s for people who do not understand real poetry. For Americans. I can tell you aren’t one of them.”
“No, I’m not,” I said. “The Americans have made a business out of art.”
He stared at me, and then he pulled up a chair.
“Do you know Rousseau’s work?”
“Yes.”
On the Origins of Private Property?”
“Yes.”
“Then hear me out,” he said. “This is my paraphrase: when the first American bought up a painting by a French artist and said ‘This is mine,’ that marked the beginning of the end of art, the fall of Paris.”
And I continued for him:
“You know that first foreigner who got the idea of acquiring a work by a French painter and putting it in his suitcase or locking it away in a safe, well, he should have that painting torn from his clutches and tossed into the Seine. And he should be banned from the country forever or beaten within an inch of his life…”
“Most excellent, sir!…”9

Conclusion

A major study already exists of Kiš‘s interactions with (and influences from) Hungarian literature.10 Such a work will not be needed about Kiš and American literature, but the author’s referential world remains a rich one, extending above all from Russia to France across several centuries of writing. The literary value and symbolic or intellectual use of America and Americans in his work confirms many of his basic approaches.

Perhaps the most interesting, or useful, findings in this short survey have to do with “An American Story.” Kiš‘s great respect for William Faulkner’s work, as evidenced in the two book reviews discussed above, underscores the important trans-Atlantic commonalities of the creative ethos of modernism. In addition, the concern in this particular story for the outsider, or marginalized victim, foreshadows one of the dominant leitmotifs not just in Kiš‘s other early stories (with our without “science fiction” content) but also in his major works of fiction that were to appear in the following decades.

 

Works Cited

  • Kiš, Danilo. “An American Story.” Translated by John K. Cox. World Literature Today (November- December 2007), 54-56.
  • —————. Homo Poeticus. Edited and with an introduction by Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.
  • —————. Iz prepiske Danila Kiša. Edited and translated from the French by Mirjana Miočinović. Vršac: KOV, 2005.
  • —————. Psalm 44. Translated by John K. Cox. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.
  • —————. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. (Writers from the Other Europe.) Translated by Duska Mikić-Mitchell. New York: Penguin, 1980.
  • —————. Varia. Edited by Danica Šterić. Beograd: Prosveta, 2007.
  • Miočinović, Mirjana. Personal communication with the author. November 30, 2014.
  • Thompson, Mark. Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013.
  • Vollmann, William T. Europe Central. New York: Viking, 2005.

 

Notes

1 “Vilijem Fokner Grad (Mladost: Zagreb, 1959),” in Varia, 386-388.

2 “Novi roman Vilijema Foknera (Krik i bijes, Naprijed: Zagreb, 1958),” in Varia, 353-354.

3 “Džems Farel: Stads Lanigan (Otokar Kersovani, 1958),” in Varia, 345-346.

4 “Novi roman Irvina Šoa. (Irvin Šo: Lusi Kraun),” in Varia, 340-341.

5 In terms of South Slav writers that Kiš admired or considered influential in his own work, Ivo Andrić led the list; Miloš Crnjanski, Miroslav Krleža, and Dragoslav Mihajlović also figure prominently in his essays. Any recounting of Kiš‘s literary loves, however, would be off the mark if it failed to mention his other favorite―and at times doggedly so―Hungarians, the poets József Attila, Ferenc Juhász, Sándor Petőfi, and György Petri, as well as the Austrians Karl Kraus and Robert Musil, along with Isaac Babel (Russia) and Piotr Rawicz (Poland).

6 Personal communication with Mirjana Miočinović.

7 Other writers in this illustrious series, forerunner to the more recent Writings from an Unbound Europe (Northwestern), included Jerzy Andrzejewski, Géza Csáth, György Konrád, Tadeusz Konwicki, Milan Kundera, and Bruno Schulz.

8 Translations of both of these works are available at www.wordswithoutborders.org.

9 “Izlet u Pariz,” in Danica Šterić, ed., Varia (Beograd: Prosveta, 2007), 548-549.

10 See Marko Čudić, Danilo Kiš i moderna mađarska poezija (Beograd: Plato, 2007).